Buy American

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Remember when the consensus opinion on the NBA draft was that while the United States was still producing some athletes, when it came to fundamentally sound, multi-skilled players, you had to look overseas?

The Europeans were the future. The Americans were the flawed.

"Carmelo Anthony didn't look he had any flaws in his game, did he?" Bob Hurley Sr., the legendary coach at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City (N.J.) asked rhetorically. "LeBron James didn't have any flaws, did he?"

Yeah, so much for that one. If you want a trend to look for in Thursday's NBA draft, watch all these American-trained players go early and often. Teams can go the foreign route at their own risk.

It was, after all, U.S. players who recently stepped into the league and contributed immediately – James, Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, et al. In the 2003-04 Rookie of the Year balloting, every vote was cast for an American.

Then there is the Darko Milicic factor. A player might look good, but the concern is whether he is ready to play – or even practice.

"I have a 10-year-old son and I think he's a lot more mature than Darko right now," Detroit coach Larry Brown said Monday on the "Late Show with David Letterman."

So do you really want to be the NBA executive that spends a lottery pick on Pavel Podkolzine, the 7-foot-5-inch "Siberian Shaq," who may look imposing in the layup line but averaged a measly 2.6 points and 2.2 rebounds a game last season in Europe?

"I don't care what league you are in, if you put the (Dwight) Howard kid in that league and give him minutes, he'll put more than 2.6 points on the board," said Hurley. "I think what has happened is that we take our 18-year-olds and look very closely for flaws and the European players are getting passes."

Sure, this stuff is cyclical, and there is little question good players can come from anywhere. But that includes Baltimore as well as Belgrade.

Just a year ago, the Euro-craze was in such full effect that a frustrated Jason Kapono provided the classic quip: "I should have left UCLA after my freshman year, played in Croatia, grown a beard and changed my name to Vladimir Kaponovich."

That was when everyone was complaining that the American system of player development – the unstructured and often competing worlds of high school, AAU and the NCAA – produced unprepared prima donnas who only wanted to get on "SportsCenter."

"I think everybody overreacted," said Steve Smith, head coach of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, which has produced dozens of NBA players including Anthony. "Everybody was saying kids in America were more interested in dunking and dribble moves than fundamentals. They said they weren't being coached at a young age.

"But as a whole, American kids are more athletic and more skilled. And they work just as hard."

Hurley, who has coached at St. Anthony's for 33 seasons, says there isn't that significant of a difference between the members of his current team and his first team.

"My kids play every single day," he said. "They love basketball as much as kids ever did. Maybe the society they live in is different, but they still dream the dream and work toward achieving it."

Coach Smith spent the last year at Oak Hill marveling at the dedication of his star, Josh Smith, a 6-foot-8-inch Georgia native who should be a lottery pick Thursday. An eye-popping athlete, Smith could easily have spent the year perfecting dunks. Instead, he took his coach's advice and practiced his mid-range game.

"He'd work out twice a day, sometimes three times a day," said coach Smith, no relation to Josh. "A lot of mornings he was in the gym at 6 a.m. and he always worked out after study hall at 9 p.m. He was in there working on ballhandling, shooting off the dribble, fundamental basketball. He was working toward (the draft)."

Maybe the current American players learned from the mini-generation of aloof personalities such as Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Kwame Brown and applied themselves. All you hear from NBA executives now is that this group – from Emeka Okafor to Dwight Howard to J.R. Smith – is full of respectable, hungry, old-school style players.

"All I know is Josh could have come in here and coasted," said coach Smith. "But he worked harder than just about anyone.

"He's dedicated."

Just your typical American kid.

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